Romney’s taxing vice-president
Mitt Romney is hoping that by announcing his vice-presidential sidekick he will put a stop to all the distracting talk about his failure to release more than a single annual tax return. Not, you understand, that he has anything to hide. His tax-haven IRA accounts in the Caymans and Bermuda can easily be explained away. But he is “simply not enthusiastic about giving [the Democrats] hundreds or thousands of more pages to pick through, distort, and lie about.”
Romney told Diane Sawyer he would declare who will be living in the U.S. Naval Observatory – the official vice-presidential residence – if the Romneys move into the White House “any time between now and the convention,” which opens in Tampa, Florida, on Aug. 27. Romney can hope the veep announcement will drown out Democrats who want to continue making trouble over whether he paid more or less tax than the rest of us, allowing the campaign to move on to graver matters than whether he is, as Columbia professor of tax law Michael J. Graetz, an assistant to the Treasury secretary under George H.W. Bush, described him: “an Olympic-level athlete at the tax avoidance game.” That may be wishful thinking on Romney’s part.
For what it’s worth, the current favorites in the veepstakes are three shades of gray: Ohio Senator Rob Portman, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The colorful Chris Christie, whose swipes at global warming deniers, the gun lobby and anti-Muslim “crazies” in his party would put moderate Republican and independent voters at ease, is thought too charismatic for the job. Romney wants everyone looking at him when he enters a room, not the big guy from Jersey.
Whoever gets the veep job will have survived intense scrutiny from Romney’s vetter-in-chief, Beth Myers, who is anxious not to repeat the reckless experiment in campaign game-changing that took place when John McCain was the Republican champion and the callow Sarah Palin was thrust naked into the national limelight. Hurdles that Romney’s choice will have successfully jumped include searching questions about “infidelity, sexual harassment, discrimination, plagiarism, alcohol or drug addiction, delinquent taxes, credit history, and use of government positions or resources for personal benefit” and handing over multiple years of tax returns. It wouldn’t do to have a vice-presidential candidate undermine the ticket by turning out to be a tax dodger or the holder of a secret overseas bank account. Romney knows this full well, because in 2008 he was subject to a similar probe by McCain’s chief veep vetter, A.B. Culvahouse.
And there’s the rub. If Myers expects full disclosure from those wishing to become vice-president, and Romney granted full disclosure of his tax affairs when he was hoping McCain would put him on the ticket, why is Romney so coy about his tax history now? The first question Romney’s veep pick should be asked is: How many years of tax returns did you hand over to Beth Myers? If the answer is one, the VP’s secret tax returns immediately fly to the top of the news agenda, right beside the story about Romney’s. What have these guys got to hide? And if the veep choice handed over several years’ worth of tax returns, Romney’s reluctance to publish more than one year of his own also makes the top of the news. Why the double standard? If the vice-president can release an archive, why not the president? Romney is damned if his veep does and damned if he doesn’t.
The simplest way to avoid charges of hypocrisy, evasion and deceit is for Romney to follow his father George’s example and advice and come clean by publishing 12 years of returns. The longer Romney waits, the larger the issue will loom in an election where the behavior of the super-wealthy is center stage. If he doesn’t, will the issue of Romney’s past tax arrangements overshadow the veep announcement? Yes. Will his failure to be open about his tax affairs prove a liability if he has not released his returns by the time of the televised debates? Most certainly.
When old-school conservatives like George Will, Bill Kristol, Brit Hume, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michael Steele, Dick Lugar, Chuck Grassley, Haley Barbour, and a dozen others who wish Romney every success in November strongly advise Romney to publish his tax returns without delay, it would seem perverse, foolhardy, even electorally suicidal to ignore their collective advice.
Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here. Follow @nwapshott at Twitter.
PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney speaks during the Independence Hall Tea Party Association’s Tax Day Tea Summit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania April 16, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer